A pandemic is a bad thing: that is something, on which there is little disagreement. Of course, there are some voices declaring that this is not such a great evil. It is pointed out that the already existing illnesses and ongoing wars are more deadly by far. That is a strange argument because it does not in any way diminish the augmented mortality, which has so far been irrepressible without a considerable and costly rallying in every way. Others insist that the real mal lies in the voluntary servitude of a society that only wants to preserve its well-being and triggers a dangerous overprotection, both governmental and medical. As if one should invent an abstract heroism, devoid of both a cause and tragic character.
Of course, no one denies the fact that important societal, even civilizational, questions are being raised, or better, underlined by this virus. Quite the contrary, one never ceases to talk about it. But as Descartes would say, what matters is to talk in a relevant mode.
Mainly, it is the word “capitalism” that is brought to the forefront. Indeed, one cannot deny the responsibility of a production system based on profit that fosters a continuous expansion of dependencies, if not of economic, technical, cultural and existential servitudes. The problem is that, for the most part, it seems enough to pronounce the word “capitalism” to exorcise the devil, after which the good god called “ecology” should appear.
One thus forgets that the devil is very old and has been the driving force of the history of the modern world which it has shaped and modelled at least for seven centuries. The unlimited production of market value became value itself, the raison d’être of society. Results were great; a new world arose. It might be that this world is currently decomposing, but without giving us anything to replace it with. One could even be tempted to say “quite the contrary” when one sees the extortion of masks from one nation by another, the absconding of a king who confines himself 9,000 kilometres away from his kingdom, the announcement of a cult intending to provide divine immunisation from the virus, or simply the hysterical brawls over supposed treatment.
In truth, what is at stake is not only this or that malfunction. It is something that goes wrong in a manner that is constitutive, inherent to the path the world has taken or that we have made it take for a long time. And what goes wrong is in fact, if I dare say, mal. The virus itself is not the evil but the virulence of the crisis, its immediate effects and, more importantly, the foreseeable aggravation in the most destitute conditions make it possible to say that it reunites in a striking way the features of “mal”.
There are three forms of “mal”: malady, misfortune (malheur), and malfeasance. Illness is part of life. Misfortune is what makes existence suffer (in the sense of life that reflects on itself) whether from an illness or from an assault (natural, social, technical, moral). Malfeasance (which could also be called curse) is the deliberate production of an assault or of an illness: it targets the being or the person, whatever you wish to call it.
To what extent is actual virulence deliberate? Up to the point where its power is linked or correlated to the complex of its factors and agents. It is useless to repeat what has been largely documented and commented on with regard to the development of viral forms, the conditions of contagion offered by present communications, the research projects active for already more than twenty years, or all technical, economic and political interactions. These are the complexes that involve pollutions, species extinction, pesticides poisoning, deforestation, as well as famines, forced migrations, difficult living conditions, impoverishments, unemployment, and other forms of social and moral decomposition. And it is also thanks to techno-economic growth that industrial empires, on the one hand, and totalitarian sway, on the other, have developed from the most crushing to the most insidious—from camps of all sorts to the exploitations of all natures and, finally, up to the exhaustion of all that which one calls “politics.”
It is not by chance that today’s health crisis has come after more than a century of accumulated disasters. It is a particularly expressive figure, though less fierce and cruel than many others, of the turnaround of our history. Progress reveals a capacity of malfeasance that was suspected for a long time but is now proven. The warnings of Freud, Heidegger, Günther Anders, Jacques Ellul, and many others, as well as everything that has been done to deconstruct the self-sufficiency of the individual, of the will, of humanism—all that has remained dead letter. But today, it is to be recognized that man does mal to the human and that we should not be surprised if a philosopher can write “Le Mal is the primary fact,” as Mehdi Belhaj Kacem does (even if this reference does not force us to share his system).
The mal has always been, in our tradition, a fault reparable or compensable by the care of God or of Reason. It passed for a negativity destined to be suppressed or overcome. However, it is the Bien, the Good of our conquest of the world that has revealed itself as being destructive, and it is for this very precise reason that it is self-destructive. Abundance destroys abundance, speed kills speed, health damages health, wealth itself might in the long run be impoverishing itself (without anything going back to the poor).
How did we get here? There is, undoubtedly, a moment since which what had been a conquest of the world (territories, resources, forces) has been transformed into the creation of a new world. Not only in the sense of America, which this expression once designated, but in the sense, in which the world literally became a creation of our techno-science, which would, therefore, be god. This is called omnipotence. Since Averroes, philosophy has known the paradoxes of omnipotence and psychoanalysis has known its hallucinatory deadlock. It is always about the possibility to limit, or not, such a power.
What could indicate a limit? Precisely, the obviousness of death, of which the virus reminds us. A death which no cause, no war, no power can justify, and which highlights the futility of so many deaths due to hunger, to depletions, to barbarities whether militaristic, genocidal or doctrinaire. Knowing that we are mortals not by accident but by the game of life and of the life of spirit.
If every existence is unique, it is because it is born and dies. It is because it is played in this interval that it is unique. David Grossmann wrote recently, regarding the pandemic: “Just as loves incites us to distinguish an individual in the midst of the masses which cross our existences, similarly the consciousness of death prompts in us the same feeling”.
However, if mal is clearly linked, in its effects, to the vertiginous inequalities of conditions, nothing, perhaps, gives a clearer foundation to equality than mortality. We are not equal due to an abstract right but thanks to the concrete condition of existing. Knowing ourselves finished, positively, absolutely, infinitely and singularly over, and not indefinitely powerful: that is a unique way of giving sense to our existences.
Jean-Luc Nancy, 4 April 2020
(Translated by Victoria Derrien)
Translator’s note: Throughout the text as far as possible the French term “Le Mal” has been left untranslated. The many senses of this term remain in use in English although it is rarely used as a noun. Through the prefixes “Mal” suggests the meaning of “bad”, as in maladjusted; deprived, as in malnutrition; intended evil as in mal intention; corruption or impropriety in malpractice.